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Medical professionals turn to music making as a tonic


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: If you are a healer, question: Where do you find comfort? In the case of doctors across the United States, the answer is music.

As part of a new series focusing on the connection between arts and health, Jeffrey Brown went to Newton, Massachusetts, recently to see how medical professionals are regenerating their spirits and becoming better providers.

The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's called the National Virtual Medical Orchestra, 60 medical professionals and students from around the country, musicians all, who come together usually to perform in the way that is suddenly the new normal: in the digital world.

But on a recent day, eight of them, led by conductor John Masko, were live and in-person for us, playing parts of works by several composers at a socially distanced backyard gathering.

This is a rare chance to hear live music, of course, and for these medical musicians an opportunity to actually get together and play. For some of them, the music is also a kind of healing in a time of trauma.

One was violist Dr. Michael Cho, who's been on the front lines of the pandemic.

Michael Cho: I saw a lot of really, really sick people. My specialty is seeing sick people. That part of it, I was used to. Just the number of people in that condition was just -- it was just mind-boggling.

Jeffrey Brown: A pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Cho has been caring for patients most in need of ventilators to help them breathe.

Michael Cho: There is a lot of tragedy.

For example, one of the worst things, I think, about the pandemic is seeing family members. So, a husband and wife both come in. A woman and her nephew, they're sick at the same time. And maybe they both succumb to the illness. I mean, those kinds of things are just horrible to think about.

And to have my colleagues and my co-workers and my friends and my family and music is what keeps me resilient through all this.

Jeffrey Brown: For many medical professionals like Michael Cho, music came before medicine, and continues to play an enormous role in their lives.

The past decade has seen a steady rise in the number of so-called medical orchestras all over the country, now numbering more than 20, non-professional, but very high-quality.

One of the oldest, founded in 1984 by members of the Harvard Medical School, is the Longwood Symphony Orchestra in Boston. Pediatrician Lisa Wong has served as its president and violinist.

Lisa Wong: I think the attention to detail and our training for looking for beauty and working hard to make that happen is the same between being a musician and being a doctor.

Jeffrey Brown: She's now cared for several generations of children in the Boston area, and remains fascinated by the deep connections between music and medicine, the fact that so many doctors played instruments as children and still do, all explored in her book "Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine."

There's the act of close listening to the strings of a fellow musician or the murmur of a patient's heart. There's the need for concentration and striving for excellence in both. There's even neurological connectivity, she says. Playing music in childhood helps wire an information highway in the brain.

Lisa Wong: Once those highways are established, you can put science through that, you can put medicine through that. You develop the brain differently.

So, what the neuroscientists are finding is, the brain of a musician looks different than a brain of someone who hasn't played music.

Jeffrey Brown: There's also a growing effort to use their music to help patients directly.

During the pandemic, Longwood members have performed outside a number of local hospitals. And Wong helped form the Boston Hope Hospital Music project, medical and other musicians performing for COVID patients.

Now she says the group wants to find even more ways to help fellow front-line medical workers, including offering music lessons and performances.

Lisa Wong: Just offering them sort of an array of things that they can do to heal that way, and to get them a little bit away from just the day-to-day challenges of the medicine itself.

Jeffrey Brown: And why is that so needed now? What have you seen?

Lisa Wong: Exhaustion. Sadness. Hopelessness. And they want to be healing.

This is what post-traumatic stress is. So, we're looking ahead that the next number of years, I think it's going to take a long time for our profession to heal.

Jeffrey Brown: For now, the National Virtual Medical Orchestra is providing a select group from around the country a place to heal and connect with some larger purpose.

John Masko: When you work with a medical orchestra, you really get that perspective that we are here for spiritual fulfillment and we're here to enjoy ourselves.

Jeffrey Brown: You feel that?

John Masko: I feel that because feel that, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: It was started this spring by 28-year-old John Masko, a son of two physicians, but not one himself, who's worked with medical musicians as music director of the Providence Medical Orchestra.

It, like arts groups everywhere, shut down in the pandemic.

John Masko: I started to hear very quickly from people about how it was simultaneously happening that their stress levels were rising astronomically in their professional lives, and that the vital outlet they had for relieving that and for using a different part of their brain was now gone.

Jeffrey Brown: Masko has found a new way into producing in virtual space. He sends musicians a video of himself conducting a piece.

The individuals record themselves, send in their video, and then rework their parts based on Masko's e-mail notes. Then the 60 individual voices are put together by professional audio and video producers.

John Masko: Groups like ours are really positioned to lead the way in innovating this new style of music-making, which, even when we get back to performing regular live music, can feed back into that and expand the sphere of music-making.

Jeffrey Brown: Raise your hand if you're just happy to be playing music with a fellow human beings, playing music.

Woman: Two hands.

Jeffrey Brown: Two hands.

For now, these musicians are left with this kind of distanced gathering, along with a deep understanding of the connections between art and medicine, including when it's the healers themselves in need.

Lisa Wong: It's hard and it's necessary to know that you also need to heal, to be able to become revitalized, so that you have enough energy to go back out.

That's the whole thing about the arts that will revitalize you, restore faith in humanity, opportunity to really appreciate beauty. And once that's filled, then you can give it back.

Jeffrey Brown: You're alive again, in a sense.

Lisa Wong: Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: And there is nothing like live music for that.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Newton, Massachusetts.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you, Jeff.

And we love that these medical professionals can find healing in this way.

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